The spy, as portrayed in fiction, often finds literature handy. In Leon Uris' Topaz, the defection of the KGB officer Kuznetov is described. When he phones offering to defect, Kuznetov is instructed to meet an American operative, Hendricks, in a Danish museum as a first step in effecting the defection. The American asks the Russian how he can be identified. He replies: "Under my arm I carry two books, Laederhalsene in Danish and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in English."
In Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Rabashov meets a Communist Party operative in a German museum. "On Rabashov's knee lay a book: Goethe'sFaust in Reclam's Universal Edition."
Apparently the particular edition is not something to be dismissed: the contumacious hero of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana cannot make out a coded telegram sent by another operative. When the two later meet, the following colloquy ensues:
"What's your edition of Lamb's Tales?"
"Damn. They gave me the wrong edition."
Earlier, "our man" asks his superior why he chose Lamb.
"It was the only book I could find in duplicate except Uncle Tom's Cabin . . . Oh, there was
something too called The Lit Lamp: A Manual of Evening Devotion, but I thought somehow it might look conspicuous on your shelves if you weren't a religious man."
If the spy has favored books, the book has not always favored the spy. The Russians often came in for their share of descriptive knocks – which may explain why Kuznetov may have opted for the book signal instead of verbally describing himself, as Uris does for him a page later:
Russians look like Russians, Hendricks thought. High forehead, suffering brown eyes of a
tortured intellectual, uneven haircut, prominent cheekbones, knobby fingers. His suit showed Western styling but was sloppily worn.
Somewhat less of a Russian visual "heavy" is described in Vladimir Nabokov's short story, "The Assistant Producer" (Nabokov did not allow his own Russian origins to induce him to flatter his man unduly, even though the character is an ex-white Russian officer, for whose side of the Russian revolutionary coin, Nabokov has some sympathy).
There was nothing of your popular Russian general about him, nothing of that good, burly, popeyed, thick-necked sort. He was lean, frail, with sharp features, a dipped mustache, and
the kind of haircut that is called by the Russians “hedgehog”; short, wiry, upright, and compact.
A Chinese spy in Spylight by James Lessor comes off worse than the Russians.
Because he was barely middle height, he appeared even fatter than he was, a gross
swollen bladder of flesh in a lightweight brown suit, creased at the buttons, dark stains of
sweat under the armpits. His neck was so thick and short that his head merged into his
body liked the head of a tortoise. His face was completely hairless, his brown Chinese eyes
as empty of emotion as peeled and slanted almonds
W. Somerset Maugham was not above pejorative pickings-on, as when he has the British spy-master in Ashenden show his operative a photograph of an Indian spy:
It showed a fat-faced, swarthy man, with full lips and a fleshy nose; his hair was black,
thick and straight, and his very large eyes even in the photograph were liquid and cow-like.
He looked ill-at-ease in European clothes
Perhaps the unkindest literary cut of them all is the description/spoof of the spy. Sir Compton MacKenzie's Water on the Brain is among the best (the British Government suppressed it on publication and it was not available in England until twenty years later). His description of the Director of Extraordinary Intelligence:
Blenkinsop saw seated at a desk a spare grizzled man of middle age, the most conspicuous
feature of whose countenance were the large dark horn-rimmed spectacles which made his
aquiline nose look absolutely owlish. Before long Blenkinsop was to learn that all senior
Intelligence officers wore large dark horn-rimmed spectacles and that the first step of
advancement in Intelligence work was a pair of dark horn-rimmed spectacles.
In fairness to the Russians, a good pair of spectacles was hard to come by in the Soviet Union, which may explain all those "popeyed generals" mentioned by Nabokov.
MacKensie has a wry comment on the nexus between spying and books. The director of Extraordinary Intelligence tells his operative that a certain operative had to resign because "the silly fellow had written some damned novel or something and we've had to make a rule that nobody who writes novels can be employed by M.Q. 99 (E), and – er – vice versa, of course, if you follow me." There is, however, apparently nothing prohibiting the reading of novels by spies employed by M.Q. 99 (E) since one, when he had nothing better to do, sometimes read a book that his wife had taken out from the library. He also exclaims, "Oh, but people never buy books, they get them out of lending libraries."
Graham Green, who served in British Intelligence in the same office with Malcolm Muggeridge and Kim Philby, who later defected, also wrote a spoof of the genre, Our Man in Havana. A British intelligence officer coopts one Mr. Wormold (a vacuum-cleaner salesman, one of whose models is called the Atomic Pile) into working for him. "Your code number is 59200 stroke 5," he instructs him. "Of course I am 59200. You'll number your sub-agents 59200 stroke 5 stroke 1 and so on." Wormold's spy messages are to be coded and decoded according to the key supplied by Charles Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare.
Gloomily he took down Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare – how he always detested Elia
and the essay on roast pork. The first group of figures, he remembered, indicated the page,
the line, and the word with which the coding began. "Dionysia, the wicked wife of Cleon," he
read, "met with an end proportionable to her desserts." He began to decode from "desserts".
To his surprise something really did emerge.
In order to receive more expense money, Wormold commences to embellish his reports to his superiors. He draws a series of vacuum-cleaner parts (of the Atomic Pile) upon which he draws a little man two inches high to indicate the huge size of the hidden military project which he suggests is under construction in the mountains of Oriente Province.
The spy sometimes gets his own back at the book. No less a spy (and traitor) than Kim Philby said of John le Carre's book The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: "the whole plot from beginning to end is basically implausible, at any rate to anyone who has any real knowledge of the business." For all we know he may have sent an angry letter to the Times Literary Supplement.
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And a note of interest re the spy and the fiction writer
Truman Capote recounts that a blind man lived near him in New York. The man subsequently left the country because he feared discovery as a Soviet spy. Years later, on a visit to Moscow, in the subway, Capote noticed the same man, minus cane and dark glasses, able to see quite well. Before Capote could approach him, the subway reached the man's stop and he got up and exited.
Ah, if only Capote could have spoken with him, we surmise, it would have been interesting. Or, perhaps, from a literary perspective, the denouement as it occurred was preferred.
Israeli writer Larry Lefkowitz's literay novel "The Critic, the Assistant Critic, and Victoria" is available from Amazon books.